Critics dismiss Vietnam’s clemency for death row inmates as ‘progress’

They say the government applies the death penalty to keep people in line and commutes it to appear ‘humane.’
By RFA Vietnamese
2024.02.09
Critics dismiss Vietnam’s clemency for death row inmates as ‘progress’ Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong addresses the media during a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister at a meeting in Tokyo, Nov. 27, 2023. Vo Van Thuong recently changed the sentences of scores of death-row inmates down to life sentences.
Richard A. Brooks/Pool photo via AP

Updated Feb 12, 2024, 10:05 p.m. ET.

Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong recently commuted the sentences of several inmates on death row to life in prison as part of a general amnesty, but rights campaigners and legal experts said the move should not be seen as a sign that the country is improving its rights record.

Instead, they said, Vietnam’s liberal use of the death sentence is part of a bid by the government to keep its citizens in line and burnish its international image through regularly announced acts of clemency.

On Dec. 27, Thuong granted amnesty to 18 death row inmates, commuting their sentences to life in prison. More than a month later, five other death row inmates had their sentences similarly reduced after they filed a petition to Thuong.

California-based activist Nguyen Ba Tung of the Vietnam Human Rights Network told RFA Vietnamese that the amnesty was simply part of a bid by the government to “beautify Vietnam’s image on the world stage.”

“The government retains the death penalty as a way to menace the people,” he said in a phone interview. “At the end of the year, or on special holidays, they let the president grant an amnesty to show that they are ‘humane.’ But international human rights groups can see through this act.”

Vietnam’s judiciary is notorious for its application of the death sentence. Eighteen criminal charges in the country’s penal code carry maximum sentences of execution – most of which are related to drug crimes.

Amnesty International’s latest annual report on death sentences and executions, released in May 2023, ranked Vietnam as eighth among nations with the most recorded death sentences in 2022, with at least 102.

Just weeks prior to Thuong’s decision to grant amnesty to the five death row inmates, a court in Nghe An province handed down nine death sentences to convicted traffickers from a busted drug ring.

Amnesty ‘not a progressive act’

Nguyen Van Dai, a veteran lawyer in the capital Hanoi, told RFA that the application and commutation of the death sentence is all part of a strategy by the government to threaten its citizens at home and avoid criticism abroad.

“Every year, Vietnam hands out hundreds of death sentences to drug traffickers and murderers,” he said. “If all the death inmates were executed, the international community would pillory Vietnam. So they find inmates who were sentenced to death for less heinous criminal acts and grant them amnesty.”

Dai dismissed the idea of amnesty for death row inmates as progress or a sign of judicial reform.

“Progress means that clemency should be granted to all prisoners, both political or criminal, but it is never applied in cases of national security,” he said. “This is a form of discrimination and I don’t consider amnesty a progressive act.”

In 2022, Vietnam granted clemency to 31 death row inmates, four of whom were foreign nationals.

In September 2023, Vietnam executed death row inmate Le Van Manh, despite claims by Amnesty International that his case was “mired in serious irregularities and violations of the right to a fair trial,” and calls by the international community to stay his sentence.

Manh was sentenced to death in 2005, when he was 23 years old, for allegedly raping and killing a female student from his village earlier that year. He had pleaded not guilty to the charges and maintained his innocence until his execution.

Amnesty International said commutations of the death penalty can be seen as a positive step and it remains hopeful the move signals Vietnam’s increasing openness to reform, “however improbable that may seem in a country that likely executes scores of people every year under great secrecy.”

But Amnesty’s Interim Deputy Regional Director for Communications, Joe Freeman, said the announcements fell well short of bringing Vietnam in line with international human rights law and standards.

"Authorities in Viet Nam continue to impose the death penalty for murder, drug related offences and economic crimes, such as embezzlement,” he said. 

“The death penalty is also handed down following grossly unfair trials, in several cases relying on ‘confessions’ that the defendants say were made after torture or other ill-treatment.

"The authorities must end the secrecy that surrounds their use of the death penalty and immediately establish an official moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition. 

Viet Nam and other states that maintain this punishment are simply out of step with the majority of the world's countries, where the death penalty is increasingly becoming a relic of the past."

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

Updated with comment from Amnesty International.

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